Category Archives: Mediterranean

4 OCTOBER, 1916: Sun, Sea and Subs

I’ve mentioned before that European warfare’s big offensive actions had traditionally, and for good reasons, been concentrated on the spring and the early autumn (15 March 1915: Spring Fever).  Broadly speaking, this pattern had been retained through 1915, and it had characterised planning for the spring of 1916 until the early opening of Germany’s Verdun offensive altered the timing of Allied attacks on both main fronts.

Come the autumn of 1916, Verdun, the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive were all still in progress, albeit grinding towards exhausted termination.  With plenty of demands on their stretched resources from secondary fronts in Italy, central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus (to name only the headliners), the protagonists on the Eastern and Western Fronts were in no position to plan big new offensives.

So while you could hardly call the beginning of October 1916 a quiet time, it wasn’t infused with the grand schemes and rampant optimism that came with a new set of plans designed to end the War. Granted, the ongoing battle for Romania was generating plenty of excitement, and the Italian high command was keeping things lively with repeated, failed attacks around the River Isonzo (the seventh Isonzo Offensive had graced three days in mid-September, the eighth would begin in a week), but broadly speaking the War entered its third autumn in business as usual mode.

That makes this is a good moment to talk about one of those theatres of war that went about its bad business without ever quite generating a narrative for posterity.  The First World War entailed a fair few of those, partly thanks to posterity’s tunnel vision, but on this occasion I’m referring to the Mediterranean Sea.  On 4 October 1916, German submarines sank two large, Allied ships in the Mediterranean, so I’ll use their fates as a starting point.

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Franconia was a modern Cunard liner, operated on the North Atlantic run since 1911 and converted as a troop ship in early 1915.  She was some 300km east of Malta on 4 October, en route for Salonika, when sunk by a torpedo from the German submarine UB-47 (UB was the designation given to Germany’s small, coastal attack submarines).  No troops were aboard, but twelve of her 314-strong crew were killed.

The Franconia…

The SS Gallia was a new French liner, built in 1913, and had worked the South Atlantic crossing before her conversion as a troop ship. Also on her way to Salonika (from Toulon) on 4 October, she was packed with 2,000 troops and 350 crewmen  when, halfway between Sardinia and Tunisia, a torpedo from the U-35 sent her to the bottom.  Hundreds drowned before help reached the wreck, though no precise casualty figures were ever compiled.

… and the doomed but splendid Gallia.

These losses make a small point about the roles played by big passenger ships, which performed auxiliary naval tasks all over the world throughout the War, but also sum up the general pattern of Mediterranean warfare. The Allies dominated the theatre, and needed to because use of the Mediterranean was absolutely vital to their war efforts, while the Central Powers did their best to disrupt the constant flow of Allied troops and supplies, both to battlefronts all across the region and to home fronts.  A quick look at regional geopolitics should explain why.

The Central Powers didn’t have much going on in the Med.  The Ottoman Empire’s relatively ramshackle and elderly navy operated in the east, bolstered by the addition of two modern German ships in August 1914 (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships), but was also heavily committed to operations against Russian forces in the Black Sea (28 March, 1916: Infested Waters).  The Austro-Hungarian Navy, smaller but equipped with modern dreadnoughts, destroyers and cruisers, meanwhile operated out of its only major port, Pola (now Pula, in Croatia), in the northern Adriatic.  Its ships couldn’t reach the wider Mediterranean without a long trip down the coast of Italy, and were essentially trapped from the moment Italy failed to go to war alongside its original diplomatic partners, the Central Powers, in 1914.

On the Allied side, the large, modern, well-equipped French Navy had been able to concentrate almost all its resources on the Mediterranean since reaching agreements with the British in 1912, and the Italian Navy had been through a rapid expansion, building fast, modern warships as part of a naval arms race with Austria-Hungary.  Both forces were deployed to keep the Austro-Hungarian Navy bottled up in the Adriatic, to protect vital trade through their many Mediterranean ports, and to maintain links with North African colonies.  Though the British Royal Navy had restricted its Mediterranean commitments since 1912, to concentrate on protecting home waters from the German Navy, it still maintained substantial (albeit largely second-line) forces in various bases throughout the theatre, and their first duty was to protect trade flowing to Britain through the Suez Canal.

This isn’t the place to roll out yards of figures detailing the relative strengths of the Mediterranean navies, but we’re talking a massive advantage for the Allies.  Understandably enough, with the Ottoman fleet out of reach beyond the Dardanelles, it was widely assumed that the Allied fleets would at some point combine to knock the Austrian Navy out of the War – but at a time when major warships were seen by their commanders as too valuable to be risked in any kind of bold action, the anticipated battleship confrontation never came.

The Austrians stayed put behind the optimistically named Otranto Barrage, a permanent patrol of Allied (largely Italian) warships theoretically blockading the Straits of Otranto, while the Italian Navy’s big ships remained on watch in case they changed their minds. The French Navy’s dreadnoughts did the same, once they had protected initial troop movements from North Africa to Europe and taken part in 1915’s attempt to force the Dardanelles Straits.  The Royal Navy kept more busy – enduring the lion’s share of the Dardanelles shambles and otherwise protecting or facilitating mass troop transfers around campaigns in Gallipoli, the Middle East and Salonika – but also did its best to keep major warships out of potential trouble.

In place of full-scale battles, a four-year war of raid and ambush by smaller surface craft took place wherever opposing powers existed in close proximity.  Italians fought Austrians in the Adriatic, British and Ottoman forces competed in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and these ‘mosquito’ battles extended to wherever Allied warships were engaged in troop support duties.  But for all the coastal fighting in support of ground troops, for all the sporadic dash and derring-do of minelayers, torpedo boats, destroyers and sometimes even cruisers, and for all their occasional victories over major fleet units, commerce war was the big, strategic story of the Mediterranean’s First World War – and that only got fully underway once German submarines began arriving in the theatre.

The first long-range U-boats reached Austrian service in February 1915, and were soon followed by smaller, coastal craft.  Based at the relatively small Adriatic port of Cattaro, and flying the Austro-Hungarian flag until Italy and Germany were officially at war in August 1916, they inflicted enormous damage on busy Allied trade routes.  They were helped by the Mediterranean’s shallow, generally calm waters, which made life much easier for relatively primitive submarines, and by the long-term inefficiency of Allied anti-submarine measures.

The Allied Mediterranean fleets, generally under the (nominal) overall command of a French admiral, divided responsibility for protection of shipping into national spheres of influence.  They deployed their own submarines (which had precious little non-military traffic to attack) for the needle-in-a-haystack task of hunting U-boats, sent merchant and troop ships out individually or in small groups, and only assigned warships to protect particularly important cargoes.  This system, which left most Allied shipping with no protection at all, was a miserable failure.  That it was still failing in October 1916 is evidenced by the fact that the Gallia‘s precious cargo of troops didn’t merit warship escort.

The Mediterranean commerce war was in some ways more intense and more dangerous than its better-known Atlantic counterpart. Although loss of life was generally lower in the relatively hospitable Mediterranean, Allied merchant shipping was much more likely to be attacked on Mediterranean routes.

These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.
These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.

Mediterranean U-boats also came much closer to achieving strategic success with their trade campaign (though without the same fatal effects on American opinion), and would come close to completely paralysing the Italian economy by the time the Allies finally adopted the protection used against surface riders in Napoleonic times, the convoy system, in the spring of 1918.

This has rambled, it’s been short on detail and it’s left a bunch of interesting subplots for another day, but I hope it’s provided some perspective on a sprawling, highly active and strategically significant theatre of naval warfare that heritage tends to treat as a mere adjunct to the many land campaigns it serviced or otherwise affected.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.


From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.

19 FEBRUARY, 1915: Hell’s Gateway

A hundred years ago today, the first shots were fired in what became known as the Gallipoli campaign, one of the First World War’s most notorious cock-ups or, if you look at it from the other side, the defensive victory that saved Ottoman Turkey (at least for the time being) and made the name of Kemal Ataturk, one of post-War Europe’s most important political leaders.

The land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula holds a guaranteed place in the small pantheon of war stories from beyond the Western Front considered important by the British heritage industry, albeit largely because British command failures and genuinely shocking fighting conditions support the reassuring and popular ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the conflict. The same view is broadly accepted by the Australian commemorative industry, though in the context of Gallipoli’s totemic role in bringing national identity to the squabbling, competing states that made up Australia in 1914.

So the soldiers’ war in Gallipoli will be remembered in detail, and I’ll have no more than occasional sidelights to add, but ground fighting on the front didn’t get underway until April 1915. The shots fired on 19 February were the start a purely naval campaign, an Anglo-French attempt to force a passage through the heavily defended Dardanelles Straits and take Constantinople by sea. Land forces would be dragged into the fray in the wake of its initial failures.

The naval attack was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War, enable direct collaboration with Russian forces in the Black Sea and persuade all sorts of minor European nations to join the Allied side. Given that the Western Front already bore the mark of a hugely expensive stalemate, this seemed a tempting option to some strategists, particularly the all-action minister in charge of the British Royal Navy, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A simple map, borrowed and removable on request, illustrates the temptation nicely.


A purely naval attack on the Dardanelles had been deemed impossible by a British study in 1907, on the grounds that ships’ guns would be unable to subdue strong Turkish shore defences. Even if warships were able to ‘force’ a passage through the straits, enemy control of fortresses on the shoreline would force them to return. This was still true in 1915, but Churchill, one of the most strident voices for diversity of the British war effort away from the Western Front, was having none of it.

Never short on eloquence, energy or enthusiasm, Churchill ordered Admiral Carden – commanding the fleet of largely obsolete warships patrolling off the straits since August 1914’s Goeben fiasco – to carry out a raid against forts at the entrance to the Straits in November. Lucky British shooting caused considerable damage, alerted Turkish commanders to the danger of attack and told Churchill what he wanted to hear. In early January, the First Lord asked Carden for advice on the best way to force the straits with ships alone, and then mis-sold the admiral’s cautious reply to the British cabinet as a positive response. By the end of the month, despite the fact that no qualified authority had actually suggested it would work, Carden’s preferred option had become an authorised plan of action.

Most British naval strategists, led by fiery First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, regarded success as impossible without the support of ground forces to control the coast, but political optimism outweighed their mounting opposition and Churchill was able to assemble a powerful fleet for the task. When Carden’s operation began on 19 February he commanded one modern battleship, three battlecruisers, twelve pre-Dreadnought battleships and four cruisers, along with the seaplane carrier Ark Royal and a full supporting cast of destroyers, minesweepers (trawlers with civilian crews) and submarines. Carden was also supported by a French Navy force based on four more pre-Dreadnoughts, because although sceptical about the operation’s chances, the French government wasn’t about to be left out of anything that might affect its economic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Carden’s plan was hardly daring. He intended to force the straits in three stages, moving slowly and deliberately to maximise the damage to Turkish morale. Stage one involved destroying the outer forts with long, steady bombardments, beginning with an attack by heavy guns beyond the range of defensive fire; stage two concentrated on coastal batteries and minefields; and the third wave would destroy Turkish forts further inside the straits. By the end of the first day, the plan was looking unlikely to succeed.

Turkish defences had been strengthened since the heads-up of November. Minefields had been extended, an additional 24 German mobile howitzers had arrived and the siting arrangements for defensive artillery had been improved… but these had nothing to do with the ineffectual performance of Carden’s forces on 19 February. British aircraft performed poorly as artillery spotters, their reports were often ignored anyway, and observation problems contributed to lousy shooting that left most Turkish positions undamaged.

Bad weather prevented further efforts until 25 February, when Carden moved his ships closer to the targets and the outer forts were silenced – but after this small success the plan fell apart completely, as minesweeping was rendered impossible by shore batteries that could not be attacked until the mines were swept. The big guns of the modern battleship Queen Elizabeth did cause serious damage to the shore batteries when deployed on 5 March, but this was missed by British reconnaissance and the ship was withdrawn when it came under retaliatory fire from a mobile battery.

Churchill had always claimed that the operation could be called off and redefined as a raid if it went badly, but instead the stakes were raised, as the British and French governments responded to stalemate by sending ground forces to support their navies. Some 18,000 French colonial troops sailed for the Dardanelles on 10 March, and two days later General Hamilton took command of 75,000 British and Imperial troops ordered to the front.

As the invasion force gathered off the Gallipoli peninsula, and intelligence reported desperate Turkish ammunition shortages, Churchill remained convinced that victory was just a push away and ordered Carden to make a last dash for Constantinople. Carden suffered a nervous breakdown after ordering the attack on 17 March, and it began the following day under the command of his deputy, Admiral de Robeck. An unmitigated disaster, and a story for another day, it marked the end of the Gallipoli campaign’s opening phase, the point at which an audacious but ineptly planned adventure became a ghastly strategic error, and a living Hell for those sent to carry it out.

10 AUGUST, 1914: Playing Battleships

A hundred years ago today, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, put into port at Constantinople (Istanbul) and promptly enlisted, crews and all, in the Ottoman Turkish Navy.  That may seem an odd thing to do at the start of a war in which the Ottoman Empire was, at that point, neutral, and there’s quite a tale of derring-do, incompetence and naval warfare attached.

The Goeben was a big, dangerous ship, a modern battlecruiser designed for attacking prowess, heavy on armament, light on armour and quick for its size.  The Breslau was a light cruiser, a faster escort for attacks on smaller targets.  Both were in the Mediterranean, taking on fuel at the then neutral Italian port of Messina, when war with France broke out on 3 August, and they sailed south to interfere with French troop movements from its North African colonies.  On the way back the following day they passed close to Royal Navy warships, but war between Britain and Germany hadn’t yet been declared and no shots were fired.  War came a few hours later, and sent the German ships running east for their lives, hopelessly outnumbered and effectively surrounded by an enormous Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean.

What followed was a wild ride for the German ships, but also a revealing snapshot of naval warfare in 1914.  Despite the presence of on board radio, communication over long distances remained shaky, and the German ships fled for Constantinople on the basis of a false rumour that Turkey had joined the War on Germany’s side.  Shadowed by smaller British warships, Goeben and Breslau dodged and wove their way east, successfully avoiding the three British forces in a position to intercept them.  They were helped by the risk-averse approach of British admirals, who found better things to do or defensive undertones in standing orders whenever the opportunity to fight arose, but they received no help at all from the expensive but inert Austro-Hungarian Navy based in the Adriatic.

Both navies were later accused of timidity, a charge regularly levelled at the commanders of big surface craft throughout the War, but their behaviour said less about their command capabilities, more about the massive cost and prestige attached to major warships at the time.  It took a very brave man to chase glory at the risk of losing something so valuable, especially when something as cheap as a torpedo or a mine could send it to the bottom.

Once the German ships reached Constantinople and found it neutral, they had only twenty-four hours’ grace before international law required them to put to sea.  By staying as part of the Turkish Navy – far and away the best part – they were spared almost certain destruction, scored an effective point in Berlin’s campaign for an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and survived as a thorn in the side of the Allies when that goal was achieved.  That said, and despite the undoubted propaganda victory the episode delivered for Berlin, Goeben and Breslau had minimal military impact on the rest of the War.  They did achieve some success against Russian shipping and coastal installations in the Black Sea, but only between long spells under repair after damage by mines.  When peace with Russia brought them back to the Mediterranean in 1918 they again fell foul of mines, which sank the Breslau and forced the Goeben to hole up in Constantinople, reduced to the inactive deterrent role that was the lot of most big warships throughout the First World War.